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Love to dance? Here's how you can turn your passion into a degree and a career

The US offers college-level dance programs, internships and job opportunities to prepare you for the professional dance world.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   26-09-2017
Dance at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia
Dance at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.
UArts has one of the largest and most highly rated dance programs in the US (photo by UArts)

Who said you can’t dance your way through life? Prominent performing art colleges in the US prepare you for the professional dance world. They have impressive dance, choreography, and technology programs, famous alumni and movement classes you never knew existed. If dance is your passion some schools can offer you a variety of courses, job opportunities and even student teaching internships.

Maya Rao started her formal dance training in New Delhi. At 18, she was accepted to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), where she studied ballet, jazz and modern dance for four years. She attended several dance intensives in the school and performed works by Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, William Forsythe and Paul Taylor. Her work at UNCSA was featured in student choreography showcases. Rao graduated with a Contemporary Dance Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

“UNCSA gave me the stylistic versatility to prepare for a professional performing career,” said the 24-year-old Rao. 

“The lessons I learned as a dancer at UNCSA went beyond ballet positioning. I credit everything today to not only the discipline the school engrained in me, but the ability to take correction and never give up. We were taught that as dancers we have to be adaptable and flexible,” she added.

UNSCA has a conservatory approach built on class instruction, studio practice, specialized workshops with visiting artists and choreographers, and performance opportunities. As the affiliate school of the American Ballet Theatre, UNCSA has strong industry connections. Graduates from UNSCA have gone on to careers as dancers and choreographers for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Martha Graham Ensemble, and some have even successfully launched their own dance companies. Some UNSCA graduates have been back-up dancers for performers like Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson and Beyonce.

“When I am not dancing, it’s like a piece of me is missing,” said Rao. “I was lucky to get offered a job I really love soon after graduating.”

Rao is an original cast member of Cirque Du Soleil’s critically acclaimed production “Varekai,” which draws on the talents of 100 acrobats, dancers, and musicians.   

Terrance Lewis, one of Bollywood’s go-to choreographers, studied dance at the fabled Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York
Terrance Lewis, one of Bollywood’s go-to choreographers, studied dance at the fabled Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York and the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

India’s dance king Terrance Lewis, one of Bollywood’s go-to choreographers, studied at the fabled Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, in New York. He also trained at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, in Manhattan.

“I faced a lot of family pressure when I chose to dance. They wanted me to have a routine nine-to-five job as we were a big family of eight, and quite poor. I stood my ground,” Lewis told reporters.

Lewis started his formal training in dance at the age of 14. It was serendipity when Lewis represented his school at an interschool dance championship in Mumbai and performed in front of seasoned dance teacher Pervez Shetty, a judge at the competition.

“I must have been 14 when I received the first prize for the dance competition and Pervez told me that I was ‘the best of the worst.’ Feeling insulted, I asked her ‘Why?’ She said I was confident, had the swagger, but was technically zero! To me the word technique didn’t exist because we saw a dance and copied it. She said ‘No, there’s a technique for everything, including how you stand.’ She said it was because I hadn’t trained and asked me to join her jazz ballet classes,” said Lewis.

“After I saw the student dancers in Pervez’s class moving gracefully across the floor, doing jazz runs and pirouettes. I was hooked. Training became my drug,” said Lewis.

Lewis later joined the Ailey School’s summer intensive program, which gives dancers with at least three years of training the opportunity to study dance in the heart of New York City’s Theater District. The intensive is designed to sharpen a dancer’s performance skills by exposing them to a variety of techniques, repertory workshops, and stage opportunities. Admission is by audition or by submission of an online application and video audition. Most auditions consist of abbreviated classes in ballet, Horton or Graham-based modern techniques.

The Juilliard School, the storied performing arts school in Manhattan, is notoriously tough to get into. This year, it accepted only 12men and 12 women, out of more than 400 who auditioned to the school’s dance program. After one round, in ballet, about half the students were dismissed. Next came contemporary dance, and more brutal cuts. By the time they got to the interview stage, there were barely 45 applicants left.

“It can be very nerve-wracking. You may have been “the best” at what you did where you came from, but now you are surrounded by the best of the best and you either sink or swim,” Juilliard-trained gifted New York opera singer Monica Yunus told BrainGain Magazine.

Yunus, the daughter of Bangladesh’s Nobel-Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus, received her Master’s degree in vocal arts from Juilliard, where she also met her husband tenor Brandon McReynolds.    

“Juilliardis preparation for the outside world because you get a taste of what the competition will be like when you leave,” said Yunus. “On the flip side, when you graduate, you find the same faces in the wider world provide a network of friends.”

Once at Juilliard, all dance, drama and music students take courses in the liberal arts, in addition to courses specific to their major. Freshmen are required to live in university residence halls in New York City. After the first year, housing isn’t guaranteed. 

Students studying for a BFA degree in dance from Indiana University in Bloomington take a strong academic core, completing requirements in arts and humanities. The program’s core offerings consist of curricula which, through training and instruction, strengthen and refine a student’s contemporary dance technique, as well as provide scholarly inquiry into the history, science and aesthetics of dance.

Elizabeth Shea, director of the Indiana University Contemporary Dance Program, is fond of saying that the faculty strives to not only teach but also mentor, and provide a “strong theoretical base” from which each dancer can grow and work as an individual artist.

Other top institutions in America which offer dance degrees include New York University’s Tisch School of the Performing Arts, Point Park University in Pittsburg, liberal arts Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and Butler University in Indianapolis.

Both Tisch and Juilliard have dance and technology courses designed to train students in skill sets that support the ability to create new ways of working with technology and dance. The Dance program at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts is one of the top-rated and largest undergrad dance programs in America. The school boats more than 14 dance studios and students study jazz, ballet, and modern dance. Apprenticeships, internships and international study cycles are woven into the college experience. 

“We look for dancers who are curious, independent thinkers and have an openness that transcends the formality of an audition. We take time to imagine how a student will grow and contribute within our community as well as the world,” says Donna Faye Burchfield, Director of the School of Dance at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.
 

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

 
Interested in the performing arts? Check out the links below!
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